Sunday, September 14, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Benjamin Whitmer

When people talk about the elitist shift to writers who grew up with money, disconnected from the real world, and then were shuttled away to MFA programs where they wrote about growing up with money, disconnected from the real world, I wonder who these people are talking about. Sure, yes. There are a number of writers -- including some brilliant ones -- who grew up well-tended to and affirmed and even encouraged to write. (In fact, I grew up well-tended and affirmed and encouraged to write. I was the youngest and my parents -- whose childhoods were turbulent and unsettled in ways I never had to live -- had given up on making career suggestions and just let me do what I seemed to need to do, which was to write.) 

But when I'm with other writers, the well-tended, much less the well-appointed childhood, is rare. I find real writers who lived hard lives. Those students I've taught in MFA programs are often no stranger to tough inner cities with high murder rates and impoverished rural settings, lots of siblings and little food... The conversation among the authors who collect at writing conferences are often stunned that their lives have turned out this way. (My own grandfather couldn't read or write. I often imagine him at these little authorial gatherings and wonder what he'd make of it all.) The thing about writing is that it's one of the arts that requires little by way of start-up costs. And although the odds are stacked against everyone who wants to build a writing career, the door can be found wedged open by library books; people can still shove a boot in and some even kick the door straight down.

What I'm getting at is that Benjamin Whitmer is such a writer -- he kicks the door straight down. And once there, he keeps kicking down door after door, showing us lives and worlds and characters that exist and have voices only because he's given them breath. 
Without further rambling, Whitmer. Enjoy. And, if you got something from this by the end, go buy his new book CRY FATHER.  (It's how writers are allowed to keep bringing us worlds.) 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Well, I’m teaching a class on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian this summer, so most of my obsessions have been scalp-hunting and the metaphysics of Indian hating. But I’ve also been mixing in a healthy dose of 1940s and 1950s prison-break movies because of a new project I’m working on. And I've been trying out a lot of edible plants of Colorado. I’ve been thinking about those a lot so that I don’t think about writing when I take walks. I’ve even been keeping one of those edible plant guidebooks in my back pocket. And I’m still alive and haven’t been to the ER once. Which I count as a very successful obsession. I tend to consider any obsession that doesn’t send me to the ER to be a successful one.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?
Kind of. For me it was just looking at my children and being scared to death. Parenthood is always on my mind. I’m a single father, and it’s the most important thing in my life. Which doesn’t make me any better at it, of course, it just means I worry about it all the time. What could I have protected them from that I didn’t? What more could I have done for them? Where did I screw up? Parenthood is the best way to come face to face with your failures as a person. And fatherhood, in particular, is a great way to drive your head straight into all those tropes of masculinity that most of us’d probably be better off without. Cry Father came out of wrestling with those. I don’t think I learned anything from it, except maybe that I’m no good at writing positive examples, but that’s where it kicked off.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Most of my pep talking would go to finding what moves you. I think we’ve gotten way too interested in books that are market-driven or technically flawless. I want my heart broken. Once you’ve put everything you’ve got on the page hopefully you’ll find a great editor or agent to help you hone it. But until that time, don’t even worry about anything but what moves you. In his Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the human heart in conflict with itself is that alone which can make good writing. Everybody’s got an example of that story. Show me yours.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I try not to worry about it. My books are about subjects which are bound to attract a certain amount of criticism. Luckily I get some good reviews as well as some bad ones, but you have to take both with a grain of salt. The only thing I can say about Cry Father for sure is that it’s the best second novel I could write. It’s not perfect, and there’s lots of room for criticism, but it’s not my job to worry about that. It was my job to write the best second novel I could write, and I did that. That doesn’t mean the bad reviews don’t sting, but if I wanted to remain immune from criticism I wouldn’t publish.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 
I had the perfect childhood, I think. I was raised by a single mother in a series of very rural areas, so I grew up with the kind of freedom that would get most parents arrested these days. We didn’t have electricity or running water much of the time, but we always had books and woods to walk in. It was a good lesson at the beginning of my life to know how little you actually need to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. (Nor would I ever willingly live it again. I’m a sucker for hot showers and WiFi.)

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
 I’ve had a bunch of jobs. Everything from food service to factory work to technical writing. Even sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I’ve always had a dayjob and I write the kind of books that mean I always will. All of them inform what I do. If nothing else, just in the realization that most people have to spend the greatest part of their waking lives doing things that’re inherently useless. There’s a crushing desperation in that. In every job I’ve ever worked, everybody hated what they did. That’s a fact. It’s a necessary evil, something you do to feed your family, but you know you’re burning up the best part of your life just to survive. It’s terrifying if you think about it, and it seems like it gets completely bypassed in most books.

Benjamin Whitmer is the author of Pike, which was nominated for the 2013 Grand Prix de Littérature Policier, and coauthor (with Charlie Louvin) of Satan is Real, a New York Times’ Critics’ Choice book. His second novel, Cry Father, will be released on from Gallery Books. 
For more info, go to Benjamin Whitmer's website.